Friday, October 21, 2005

Moral Judgements.

There's a great article in the August edition of The Believer (my all time favorite magazine). It's an interview with Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Haidt has an interesting notion of how humans make moral judgements. He postulates that "reason is the press secretary of emotions." To clarify, Haidt believes that reasoning comes only after a moral judgement is made. That is, we make our decisions based upon emotion or instinct first and then use reasoning to justify our judgements. From the article:

"Reason is still a part of the process. It just doesn’t play the role that we think it does. We use reason, for example, to persuade someone to share our beliefs. There are different questions: there’s the psychological question of how you came by your beliefs. And then there’s the practical question of how you’re going to convince others to agree with you. Functionally, these two may have nothing to do with one another. If I believe that abortion is wrong, and I want to convince you that it’s wrong, there’s no reason I should recount to you my personal narrative of how I came to believe this. Rather, I should think up the best arguments I can come up with and give them to you. So I think the process is very much the same as what a press secretary does at a press conference. The press secretary might say that we need tax cuts because of the recession. Then, if a reporter points out to him that six months ago he said we needed tax cuts because of the surplus, can you imagine the press secretary saying: “Ohhhh, yeah, you’re right. Gosh, I guess that is contradictory.” And then can you imagine that contradiction changing the policy?"

Do you agree with Haidt's hypothesis? Do we toil over moral matters merely to rationalize the judgements we've already made?

If you read the article, you'll also find that Haidt's hypothesis extends into the political arena. To what extent do you think moral motivation plays a critical role in American policy making? Do our notions of conservatives or liberals being "bad" make any sense, given that the policies of both sides are geared towards a perception of "good?"


Anonymous Daniel said...

If you want to get somebody really worked up, take a moral position--any one will do--and offer no reason for your position. In no time at all, you will have have the person on the other side pulling out their hair, coming around to your opinion on their own or writing you off as an idiot.

A similar thing happens when you refuse to attempt to change the other person's mind. We are hardwired to back up our morals/principles/beliefs with argument and feel slighted when we are denied the opportunity to defend them.

Try it some time. The next time someone makes a blanket statement, no matter which field it comes in from, just say, "okay" and shut up. This is what I call "not taking 'yes' for an answer." We want the challenge of defending our morals and we will get angry with anyone who takes that thrill away from us.

As to the interview, I found Haidt's arguments interesting but noticed that he had a hard time doing his own reasoning, which could reinforce his thesis, I suppose.

But I do agree that the political divide is defined on a moral basis. And I also agree (even though he more-or-less disavowed it in the last few paragraphs)that liberals get their knickers in a twist all too often with regards to conservatives. Conservatives do this, too, but using his argument, conservatives have a better reason. This drives liberals nuts and leads to the kind of fire-breathing we hear from even the mainstream left.

We come back to the impulse to defend one's moral code. While we are often frustrated by the inability to win others to our side, what we really want is the sacrament of professing our faith.

Sorry for the length.

2:21 PM  
Blogger thc said...

What Daniel said.

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What thc said.

-Raine in Seattle

9:54 PM  
Blogger Camphor said...

What daniel said. *g* Say 'Yes, I agree.' and take the wind out of the agrument, while making it obvious that you don't agree- easiest and best way to infuriate an opponent.

But I do believe that the docotr has got it right, at least in myc ase. I decide first, expalin later. It migth be that when I decide I consider the logical implications etc, but...I definately don't do it consciously. I just decide 'that's what the answer is', then, if necessay, I check to see if I got it right. And why not?

11:11 PM  
Blogger RT said...

Well hell. I guess you guys are going to leave it to me to disagree with both what Haidt said, and what Daniel said. It's preposterous to think that we are so initially judgmental, and that we feel the need to explain ourselves.

5:08 PM  
Blogger thc said...

Well, RT does make a good point...

5:15 PM  
Blogger RT said...

*chuckle chuckle* I know.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

RT: Could you elaborate further? That is, I'm asking you to explain yourself. ;-)

Really, I wonder if your response to Haidt's argument came prior to rationalization. That's not meant as a criticism at all, by the way. I mean, is it possible that we make our decisions prior to our justifications of that decision. Note -- justifying a decision to one's self is part of all of this.

At what point do we begin justifying a decision/judgement to ourselves, before or after making that choice? When do we actually weigh things out?

5:57 PM  
Blogger Teri said...

I can see his point. I think emotion plays a bigger role than we give it credit for.
I wonder how being influenced (brainwashed) at a early age to have a strong opinion about something plays into this. Is it emotion or programming?

9:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Leslie said...

I, not being liberal or conservative..kinda in the middle somewhere, think that the extremes sort of balance each other out with the occassional swing one way or the other.

2:14 AM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...

The man and his arguments really don't impress me at all. His arguments can be used for any strongly held belief, whether about morals or not. We don't give personal narratives as to why we came to believe or disbelieve in say the theory of evolution. We instead give the best arguments we can think of to support it. So what if we do the same for moral issues. That doesn’t mean we didn’t arrive at those opinions for rational reasons. He is using the wrong metric for determining this.

He seems to think he has made a big discovery in the fact that most people did not arrive at their beliefs for rational reasons. Is it really such a surprise that most people come to their moral beliefs in a fully rational fashion? This guy gets paid for thinking in this area and it's a surprise to him? I think that is the rule rather than the exception. Why is this guy clueless on the fact?

He seems not to understand or is late to the game on a lot of things he should be common knowledge to him given that this is his profession.

Why on earth does he expect people to reason positions out prior to giving an answer?

Isn't he aware of things like memory? I can remember that I have already arrived a solution to a problem and fetch it without reasoning about it. The fact that I fetch reasons after that fact doesn’t prove the original decision was made without reference to reason.

I immediately came to the conclusion that Johnathan Haidt was wrong on many of his points with very little reflection because I could immediately remember counterexamples to most of his positions. That the fetching algorithm isn’t the entire process of reasoning really doesn’t bother me. It’s part still part of the entire process.

Isn't he aware of the human ability to quickly classify things into groups. This doesn't require immediate reasoning either, and can also depend on prior reasoning. We see things all the time that we classify into particular groups based on past experience. I'm sure you can classify many unfamiliar looking things quickly without reasoning about it.

Isn't he aware of the idea of general principles?

Isn’t he aware that children are told the rules without being given the background rationalizations? Children need an understanding of the moral rules that is beyond there capacity to reason. Often they are taught in ways that do not involve rational explanation. Tommy is caught playing doctor with his sister and gets told it is bad and often is not told why.

Isn't he aware of the fact that everyone else is aware that there are morally ambiguous situations? You can take any situation and make slight adjustments till it becomes hard to tell what the right thing to do is. If a bad man was holding a gun to the siblings’ heads and told them to have sex or die, provided them with contraception would it still be a bad on their part if they did so? Of course not, except perhaps to some backwards honor based moral system. Now lessen the threat till you get to a point where it crosses a threshold for you. If he threatened to call them bad names that certainly isn’t enough. What if he proposes to forcibly rape the girl? Not as compelling as death. What if he threatens to rob them? That’s more compelling than name-calling. Keep narrowing in like this and there is going to be a point where the decision becomes difficult.

Isn't he aware that there are situations in which there is no morally correct answer whatsoever?

That most people don't spend a lot of time thinking very deeply about these issues isn't surprising. There are no simple and cheap answers. Thinking is hard and requires effort. Why waste time figuring out the nuances of whether a consentual incestuous relationship of the kind he describes can be defended rationally since it isn’t likely to happen in the first place.

Look at this question and answer from the article:

"BLVR: OK, then let’s bring this back full circle. What do you think of Julie and Mark and their consensual sex in the south of France. Is it wrong?

JH: It’s fine with me. Doesn’t bother me in the least. Remember: I’m a liberal. So if it doesn’t involve harm to someone, it’s not a big deal to me. Liberals love to find victims, and incest cases are usually ones in which someone is being harmed. But that’s the trick of the question. They’re both adults, and it’s consensual. So liberals have an especially hard time trying to justify why it’s wrong. But I wrote the story, so I know the trick."

He can't even get this question right. He's a professional and he should know there are damn good arguments as to why this relationship is wrong.

Lets work from my ethical perspective. I believe that the proper means to tell if something is immoral is if the behavior is not in your enlightened-self-interest. Determining if something is in your enlightened-self-interest is a very difficult problem. It has no easy answer and certainly depends on circumstances.

In his example a brother and a sister imbibe wine till they get the idea to have sex, and then acted on it. The question is was that behavior in their enlightened-self-interest. I believe the answer is no.

I am using the word enlightened here as an antonym to short sighted. Thus behavior such as stealing is not in your enlightened-self-interest if you are not short sighted about the consequences. These consequences are due to human nature, and the issues of the existence of others, reputation, fallibility, habit, risk, self-image, etc. Reputation- if you get caught you will be a known thief. Fallibility - you can never be absolutely sure you won. Habit - if you are successful this time what is to stop you from making a habit of it. These issues work synergistically also. For instance the fact that you might make a habit of stealing will increase your chances of making a mistake.

I am using a sophisticated (enlightened) definition of self here. The self is not merely the genes, the body, or the personality of the person. It is the total sum of who they are. It includes all those things plus their culture, values, property, relatives, and standing in society. As an example of this if you had children they would be part of your self. If you were on a sinking ship it would be natural of you to be searching for them, and getting them on a lifeboat in preference to the children of others. It would be considered a selfless act on your part to save someone else’s children to your own. So in a true sense they are part of your self. The same goes for things that you might not think of as independent of a normal understanding of the self, such as language. In this sense I am using a specialized definition of self in my moral beliefs.

For me, it is important to be rational in the process of determining your enlightened-self-interest. Here’s my definition of rationality that I will use in the process:
“Rationality consists of recognizing the possibility of error in our beliefs and actions, then using every method available and commensurate with the situation to reduce such error.”
I hope it is obvious why you want to avoid error in deciding what actions are best for you.

So let me now analyze Julie and Mark’s decision to have consensual incest in light of my moral system:
1) They made the decision under the influence of alcohol. This seems prone to error.
2) There is the possibility they might get caught regardless of how safe they think they are.
3) Their violation of this norm raises the question of what other norms they are willing to break.
4) During the act of incest one of them has to take the initiative. In some way or another it has to be done, either physically or verbally. Beforehand there is no way to know whether the advance will be received well. This is a risky undertaking. The person doing so is risking permanently damaging the brother-sister relationship for the sake of what is essentially, according to the example, a one-night stand.
6) In the case of rejection there is also the risk the affronted party will share this breach with others, which will damage your reputation with those others.
7) In the case of a consensual act there is still the possibility that the other will reconsider the act at a future date and decide differently.
8) Why should we expect this one-night stand to work out better on average than any other? Isn’t that a ridiculous and irrational assumption from the outset? Is that the common situation or not, do friends “become closer” via one night stands or does it tend to disrupt relationships. We know the answer is that they tend to disrupt.
9) There is always a chance that birth control will fail. Doesn’t matter if they are using one, two, or three methods.
10) Behavior that could be perfectly in line with your enlightened-self-interest in one society may not be so in another. If the entire society believes in an invisible pink unicorn as the Supreme Being and there is a death penalty for scoffing at the idea then it really isn’t in your interest to scoff. If there is a reason for you to be hiding your illicit act of incest then your society probably frowns on it and there will be consequences. Consequences for you, your sibling, and the potential baby are all bad, and they all reflect on your character.
11) Whenever engaging in sex you are risking the possibility of creating a child. With incest you can decide to abort, or have the child as any other situation. Imagine what such a decision is going to do to your relationship. Suppose one decides to abort and the other doesn’t? This also will bleed into other relationships. Who exactly can you go to for advice in such a decision? These are only more opportunities for your act of incest to become known.
12) If you were taught that incest was wrong you are going to have issues of self-worth after this act. If you are not you will still have an issue of self worth with others who were. You will have to keep your true self a secret in order to maintain status in society, which is not something that tends to increase self-esteem.
13) Social norms are often arrived by a process of trial and error that goes beyond the reasoning capabilities of most individuals. When you break such social norms you need to be aware of the possibility you are on thin ice.
14) Such a close sexual relationship with a sibling can be disruptive of your main sexual relationship. This is worse than a one-night stand with some stranger in that you will continue have to interaction with your sibling.
15) If it was really so good it could be habit forming. Why not just one more time?
16) What if later upon reflection one wants a repeat experience and one not? What if the one who wants the repeat experience isn’t you? How exactly are you going to reason your way out of it if you couldn’t do so the first time. Why doesn’t the argument of “just this once” work a second time?
17) There is always a risk of getting emotionally attached (in a sexual way) to a sex partner. This would be disruptive of a brother-sister relationship.
18) Problems can spill over into your relationship with your parents, and other siblings. Especially if you still live with them.

I could go on with reasons but I’m going to stop. You got the idea.

Notice that some of these issues do not arise if the incestuous relationship were to occur in a society that had no incest taboo and if the relationship were monogamous. However, other factors become more damaging to the self. Marrying your sister does increase your chances of producing a freak, although I think the odds are a lot less than people assume. I’m assuming the purpose of the marriage is to have children. Having such a child really isn’t in your self-interest; think of all the days you have to spend as nursemaid when you could instead be watching your healthy child going off on it’s own to live a life of achievement.

Also notice that I did all this without any reference to a God. The problem with most religions is that they base their moral systems on the issue of whether a god says to do them or not. If god says yes then it is good, otherwise it is bad. This does not actually rationally defensible. The question arises, what if God tells you that murder is good, does that make it good. Well of course not. Therefore there is some criteria we use that goes beyond what a god tells us. This is true even in the case where we believe our gods to be infallible and our religious books to be literally “The Word of God”. Most fundamentalist are inconsistent in this regard. They believe those things and yet they think they are competent to judge that certain passages do not mean what they clearly say. They read that God has told them to act immorally and assume that since god is good the interpretation must be wrong. The truth of the matter is that they are not really using the teachings of the book or their God to guide them at that point. They just don’t recognize the fact because they and their peers have spent so much time deluding themselves. They are actually using a process that is closer to the one I described, although more primitive and more prone to error.

5:00 PM  
Blogger mis_nomer said...

Interesting.. Thanks for the link. I agree that we usually rationalise our moral judgements rather than the other way around. Otherwise we would be purely utilarian.

Going the other direction, do you think moral judgements are based on a mix of faith, tradition and culture? If reason is used only to rationalise our beliefs, then isn't reason side-stepped in the process? Sometimes I think reason mediates between faith and our moral judgements too.

For example. I read in the sacred book that all women should cover their heads. Reason mediates and tells me that it is speaking of the principle of humility rather than the head-covering itself. Therefore I make the moral judgement that humility is desired, not covered heads.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...


I think that reasoning and rationalizing are two separate concepts. Rationalizing is the use of false reasoning in order to justify something. If the person who has made a moral judgement uses reason to the best of his or her ability to explain why they came to the decision I do not consider that rationalization. It's perfectly fine if they come to the wrong conclusion as long as they do so honestly, and accept constructive criticism of their rationalization.

6:27 PM  
Blogger RT said...

Damn. Dude done went and took all the fun out of this experiment.

If anyone is still reading past that long ass comment:

Daniel, I couldn't agree more, lol. And I think someone just proved it.

Vavoom, I'm not so sure Haidt had it right... I think that in some cases, we do tend to justify our judgements, but there are other cases that as we learn more about people in general, we realize that our initial judgements could be wrong and we debate it within our minds.

Or, I don't know. Maybe he's right? It sure sounded good, at any rate.

12:53 AM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...

Daniel said...
"Sorry for the length.",


8:01 PM  

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